The Best Show Nobody's Watching
How I Met Your Mother should have been the next Friends. The actors are dedicated, the characters honest; the writers walk the fine line between comedy and sentimentality flawlessly. So what went wrong? Miriam Datskovsky talked to the Emmy-nominated star, Neil Patrick Harris—who’s also this year’s Emmy host.
The very morning Letterman alums Carter Bays and Craig Thomas pitched their sitcom, How I Met Your Mother, to CBS, network president Les Moonves told his development team that they needed a show for young people. In other words, the next Friends. With Friends going off the air, CBS suddenly had a chance to cut into the much coveted 18 to 49 demographic. So CBS grabbed HIMYM, as its handful of diehard fans fondly call it.
Trouble is, the ratings blow: since its premiere in 2005, How I Met Your Mother has averaged nine million viewers between ages 18 to 49, placing it just shy of 60th in the rankings. The show is one of those cult-faves with a dedicated twentysomething following not unlike that of Miss Guided, which, when ABC cancelled after seven short episodes last year, rallied the blogosphere in a vain attempt to bring the freshman comedy back.
"When Dancing With The Stars is on for an hour-and-a-half Monday nights, you could show your boner on TV and no one would watch it."
That How I Met Your Mother airs on Monday nights is both a blessing and a curse. It doesn’t compete with comedy heavyweights The Office or even Entourage, but it does tend to get lost behind goofy reality TV and game shows. “When Dancing With The Stars is on for an hour-and-a-half Monday nights, you could show your boner on TV and no one would watch it,” Neil Patrick Harris, who plays Barney, a douchy, eccentric, but oddly humane and appealing man-slut, told The Daily Beast. “We’re glad we’re not in competition with another similar show. But honestly it can be frustrating when a show about suitcases [ Deal or No Deal] beats you in the ratings week after week.”
That so few people actually watch HIMYM frustrates me too. True, I am a twenty-something single girl striving to become a successful journalist in New York and probably drinking more than I am advised to and, as such, firmly within the target audience. But the show is hilarious and heart-warming, genius in its writing, and innovative in its story-telling. The characters are honest: In addition to Barney, there is Ted (played by Josh Radnor), the goofy, romantic, slightly over-the-top protagonist searching for the love of his life; Marshall (Jason Segel) and Lily (Alyson Hannigan), the would-be environmental protection lawyer stuck in a corporate job and his kindergarten-teacher, fashion-addict wife; and Robin (Cobie Smolders), the incredibly independent, forceful Canadian television reporter who inadvertently stole Ted, and then Barney’s, hearts.
HIMYM walks the fine line between comedy and sentimentality flawlessly: a recent episode in which Ted contemplates moving to New Jersey to live with his fiancé deftly tackled the nuances of compromise and suburbia with a steady stream of Jersey jokes. What stretching of reality does occur is offset by the fact that the story is being told in reverse—future Ted embellishes, allowing the writers more outrageous wiggle-room. Ted, Barney, Marshall, Lily, and Robin don’t sit in a coffee shop all day instead of going to work: they drink, in a bar, at night. How I Met Your Mother isn’t just the next Friends; it’s better than Friends. So why is nobody watching?
Obviously, CBS being the old-man/gray-haired-lady network of Two and A Half Men, The New Adventures of Old Christine, and now Gary Unmarried doesn’t help. (Even as CBS network claimed third last week in the 18 to 49 demographic, narrowly beating out NBC, it is still miles behind ABC and FOX.) How I Met Your Mother is a twentysomething show on what hip twentysomethings typically associate as an old man network.
Watch a recent clip from How I Met Your Mother
Lest I continue to bitch about how none of you silly people watch How I Met Your Mother I should note the show has had its successes. Last month, Lifetime snapped up exclusive syndication rights to the show. How I Met Your Mother sold for a reported $750,000 per episode (second-only to Two And A Half Men, which sold for $800,000), after a vigorous bidding war between TBS, FX, ABC Family, and Comedy Central.
Which only makes the fact that CBS has not been overly friendly to How I Met Your Mother that much more insulting. The network did not renew the show for a fourth season in February, as it did with most of its returning shows, but instead waited until May to do so, leaving the cast and crew in a lurch. How I Met Your Mother is co-produced—owned by Twentieth Century Fox but aired on CBS—which means the show’s profits are split between the two companies, further relegating it to unwanted-stepchild territory. This often happens with co-produced shows: NBC happily handed over the eight-year-old cult hit Scrubs to ABC this year.
Besides, CBS has never been able to match NBC’s brilliant promotional campaigns. People just don’t buzz about CBS shows the way they do NBC. Even to this day, people associate “Must See TV” with Thursday nights on NBC, despite the fact that the network hasn’t much used that slogan since the ‘90s. And today, Harris points out, “NBC will just declare The Office a huge hit, and that’s their marketing technique. People who watch those ads go, ‘Oh, The Office! This is a big, giant hit, I better watch it.’” He sighs. “One of the things I’m learning is just to not meddle. If they choose not to do a big promotion to push for our show, there’s nothing I can do about it. I hope that they do, but it’s fine.”
Not least of all because the plethora of choices (there are more than 30 comedies on the air this season) have allowed shows to both become more niche and viewers more selective, making it much harder for comedies to succeed. Friends could pull in 50 million viewers on a good night; now, not so much. “There aren’t monster hits anymore,” co-creator Carter Bays acknowledged to The Daily Beast. “I think there’s less money going into it, just because the money is so spread out and you have so many networks. It’s not like the Fox Corporation [ How I Met Your Mother’s home studio] has thirty hours of primetime a week, or however many hours it is. They’re programming for FX, for all their other networks and cable channels.”
The comedy glut is also one of the reasons How I Met Your Mother has yet to win a major Emmy, or other notable industry accolade. The show has won Emmys for art direction and cinematography, and Harris has been nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actor twice. (He lost, both times, to Entourage’s Jeremy Piven.) And since Emmys don’t necessarily translate into good ratings— Arrested Development being the prime example—networks don’t campaign so heavily for them. HBO does, but HBO needs people to want to pay to see their shows.
But ratings and industry accolades aside, here is the good news: the syndication deal stipulated that How I Met Your Mother run for at least five seasons (it is currently on its fourth). Plus, the amount of money invested in it means that even if CBS were to drop the show, which would be silly on their part, other networks, particularly those owned by FOX, will be chomping at the bit.
CBS has also quietly ramped up its viral marketing strategies, which did not even exist when How I Met Your Mother first premiered. In addition to an HIMYM Ultimate Fan Community complete with online message boards, CBS.com recently debuted “ Social Viewing Rooms,” in which users can simultaneously watch and discuss recent episodes together.
When all is said and done, as Bays and Harris and I all agree, having a solid cult-following means way more than sky-high ratings or any gawdy statuette. Sure, Two And A Half Men is so appealing to such a large audience because the characters are archetypes, the plotlines basic and relatable. But How I Met Your Mother hits fans smack in the gut and makes people care about the show and what is going to happen to Barney, Ted, Marshall, Lily, and Robin week after week. Harris, for one, appreciates “that the audience has given us a time to grow.” And, if somewhat begrudging about CBS’ promotional choices, he compliments the fact “that the network didn’t yank us if we dropped one tenth of a percentage point.”
So, you silly people (and by silly I really mean all of you thirtysomethings and fortysomethings I normally dismiss), this is why you should care. Because you could go home and randomly turn on the television and watch a ridiculously over-the-top show like Grey’s Anatomy every now and again, and you will feel better about your life, because who doesn’t feel sane after spending an hour with those wacked-out characters. Or you could go home and watch The Office, which is absolutely hilarious, and laugh and move on with your life, too. But How I Met Your Mother is not just funny. It’s sensitive and real in a way that makes you invested enough to buy Seasons One through Three on DVD, so that you know that Marshall grew up with way too many heavy-ass brothers in Minnesota and Barney is a corporate asshole because he used to be a hippie who got dumped by his coffee-shop-fiancé. It is the rare comedy that everyone, of all ages, can relate to—a story that a fiftysomething man is telling his children, about falling in love and finally, finally growing up.
Miriam Datskovsky is the assistant editor at The Daily Beast. Her work has also appeared in Conde Nast Portfolio, New York magazine, and nymag.com.